President-elect Donald Trump’s ongoing feud with U.S. intelligence agencies over alleged hacking by Russia is unnerving outside national security experts, some of whom fear the frosty relationship could impact Trump’s ability to govern.
Of course Trump — who said in August the intelligence community’s performance has been “catastrophic” —wouldn’t be the first president to have a strained relationship with his own agencies.
But what separates Trump, some experts say, is his unusually harsh public criticism of the intelligence community’s basic worth and and a lack of clarity on how he plans to gather facts if he refuses their counsel.
“No presidents have been perfectly happy with intelligence assessments because intelligence assessments often bring bad news,” David Priess, author of “The President’s Book of Secrets” and a former CIA officer and daily briefer to President George W. Bush, told NBC News.
Trump lashed out at the CIA in a statement over the weekend after reports that intelligence officials concluded Russia stole and leaked Democratic emails in order to tip the election away from Hillary Clinton, calling the agency “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
The CIA’s assessment that Russia not only interfered in the election but wanted to help Trump — an assessment other agencies aren’t necessarily ready to make — helped fuel bipartisan calls for a Congressional investigation.
Yet Trump has gone further than criticizing intelligence regarding the motive behind the hacks. He also dismissed a detailed public statement in October from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Director of National Intelligence fingering Russia as the culprit, telling Time magazine last week the offender “could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
In another move that’s troubled some national security veterans, Trump confirmed he is not taking daily intelligence briefings, instead relying on a more irregular schedule.
“I’m, like, a smart person,” he told Fox News Sunday. “I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”
This type of tension isn’t entirely new for a president-elect. As Priess noted, President Richard Nixon actively distrusted the CIA, refused intelligence briefings during his transition, and relied on close aides like Henry Kissinger to act as a buffer between himself and the intelligence community during his White House tenure. Intelligence assessments are far from always accurate, and presidents questioning whether they’re getting a complete picture isn’t necessarily odd or unhealthy.
But Nixon had also been a two-term vice president with deep foreign policy knowledge who cultivated his own structure with Kissinger for organizing and analyzing information. Trump, by contrast, is a blank slate with little experience in the realm of foreign affairs or government bureaucracy and a strong interest in conspiracy theories. His choice of national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has also faced criticism for credulously passing on false rumors online during the election and from some former colleagues who say he stifled dissent.
“In Trump’s case, it’s not really clear what the substitute is,” said Rebecca Friedman Lissner, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “He’s basically discrediting the intelligence community and pointing to no more reputable sources.”
On Russian hacking, Trump has offered little explanation as to why he disagrees with the intelligence consensus and what evidence has led him to a different conclusion. He has kept a relatively small circle of advisers and said last year he gets his information primarily from “the shows” and believed he was more knowledgeable about topics like ISIS than military leaders.
“Intelligence has enormous implications for keeping the military safe, preventing threats against the homeland, and foreign diplomacy,” Susan Hennessey, a Brookings fellow and former attorney at the NSA, said. “What happens when it goes away, I don’t know. We could have a president who is governing based on instinct instead of evidence.”
President Obama indirectly appealed to Trump to take intelligence reports more seriously in an appearance Monday on “The Daily Show.”
“It doesn’t matter how smart you are,” he said. “You have to have the best information possible to make the best decisions possible, and my experience with our intelligence agencies is that they are not perfect, they’d be the first to acknowledge that, but they are full of extraordinarily hard-working, patriotic and knowledgeable experts. If you’re not getting their perspective, their detailed perspective, then you are flying blind.”
Like Trump, Obama had his own criticisms of the CIA while running for president, especially its use of techniques like waterboarding that he labeled torture. As president, though, he resisted calls for a sweeping investigation into agents who carried out interrogations in order to avoid poisoning his relationship with the intelligence community.
Trump’s unwillingness to take daily briefings could also exacerbate problems brought on by his inexperience, Lissner added, because it denies him valuable pre-scheduled time to think broadly about foreign policy and ask relevant questions that go beyond raw day-to-day intel findings.
Beyond the effect on Trump, though, is the effect on the intelligence community itself. If Trump disparages their work out of hand, it could lower morale at agencies and potentially harm recruitment and retention. This is especially concerning at an institution like the NSA, Hennessey warned, which relies on highly skilled analysts who may be passing up higher paying jobs in Silicon Valley.
“There are a number of people in the intelligence community who risk their lives to do this out of a deep sense of patriotism,” she said. “If those men and women start to hear from the president that he doesn’t care so much about their info, he won’t read it, he won’t believe it, I think really talented people are going to start to think ‘Why am I doing this?'”
There’s also the potential for backlash, which could further engender mistrust. If intelligence officials feel their warnings are going unheeded, they could complain to leaders in the House and Senate or leak to the press in an effort to draw attention to their work.
“They’re not afraid of operating behind the president’s back if they need to and if it’s absolutely necessary,” Gary Schmitt, co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said. “The administration could find itself fighting headlines they would not otherwise want to see.”
As with so many aspects of Trump’s presidency, though, it’s difficult to judge just what Trump will do until he takes office. While Flynn has rankled some national security leaders with his combative style and occasional dips into the fringe, others are relatively traditional choices like retired general John Mattis at Defense, retired general John Kelly at DHS, and Congressman Mike Pompeo for CIA director. Trump’s choice of secretary of state, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, is an outsider who faces an uncertain confirmation process.
“It’s too soon to tell how this will develop in this administration, but things are off to a shaky start,” Priess, the former CIA officer, said.